SJ Berwin shakes up management structure

UK and European growth prompts wholesale overhaul of corporate governance

SJ Berwin has overhauled its corporate governance structure to reflect the firm’s rapid UK and European growth.
The firm has created a new managing partner role, marking a shift in its longstanding culture of minimal central management.
EU and competition partner Ralph Cohen has taken up the new role following soundings by senior partner David Harrel.
Harrel has also agreed to stay on as senior partner for a third consecutive term, starting in September. He has already served as senior partner for a decade, but under the new partnership deed terms have been revised to three years.
SJ Berwin has been virtually unique among the top 100 law firms in shying away from having distinct senior and managing partner roles. But the firm’s rapid growth – it launched in Madrid in 1999, Paris last year and has been steadily growing its German practice – has prompted a rethink.
Harrel said: “I’ve been combining the roles, but what’s happened over the years is that the firm has grown here and in Europe and it’s time to share some of the load. It’s worked very well and it is very much my initiative to appoint a managing partner because there are other things I want to do.
“A size factor comes into this. There are just too many things to be done. You can’t carry on keeping in touch with all the bits as much as you’d like to. That hasn’t happened yet, but we wanted to move before it happened.
“I feel we’re ahead of ourselves, but equally, it’s the right move.”
Harrel will now become more involved in client care and business development. Cohen will focus on the day-to-day running of the London office, while spending around 60 per cent of his time on his practice.
“We rely on the departments to run themselves, but to run well you have to strengthen the centre to ensure consistency across the practice,” said Harrel.
Harrel will continue to chair the firm’s strategy committee, which includes its European office heads and which is one of two key committees in the SJ Berwin structure.
However, Cohen will take over from chief executive Keith Wood as chair of the management committee, which includes the firm’s professional managers and which is tasked with enacting policy. Wood will continue to be a member, but the aim now is to strengthen the connection between the two committees by introducing a partner as chair.
The new structure is also aimed at helping the firm deal with the succession issue that inevitably arises from Harrel’s long service as senior partner. “It gives people choices,” said Harrel. “We might want to combine people with different attributes [in the senior and managing partner roles], so it gives us options.”